Fifty Years Later: Considering the Legacy of JFK

Posted on January 24, 2011


President John F. Kennedy

It was fifty years ago this week that John F. Kennedy delivered his famous inauguration speech. Despite our current love affair with increasingly younger and more photogenic leaders in the West, Kennedy remains the youngest man ever to be elected President of the United States, and probably ranks among the most handsome. He is often viewed as embodying the era in which he lived, and – even now – is still looked upon as an iconic figure by the modern left.

In a speech given last Friday, Barack Obama paid tribute on the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s inauguration: ‘Because of his vision, more people prospered, more people served, our union was made more perfect. . . Because of that vision, I can stand here tonight as President of the United States.’ This is true in a very literal sense, of course, since it was the Kennedy administration which gave impetus to advances in civil rights for African-Americans during the 1960s.

Many have compared President Obama to Kennedy, even styling him as ‘the new JFK’. There are indeed many accidental similarities between the two figures. Both were young, Harvard-educated, previously unknown first-term Senators who rose to prominence after acclaimed speeches to the Democratic convention, and went on to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and to break glass ceilings in American politics – JFK was the first Catholic President, Obama the first African-American. But it is more difficult to see substantial similarities between the political positions of the two, and many have asked if Jack Kennedy would even recognise the Democratic Party today.

In many ways JFK was a political enigma, but one that perhaps has something to teach a society increasingly divided along ideological fault-lines. He was a strong voice for the poorest members of society, ‘not because the Communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right’. Yet, he was no advocate of a dependency culture, and pioneered a program of $11.1 billion in tax cuts, including dramatic reductions in rates for high-earners, reflecting a regard for honest industry. The President responsible for the creation of the Peace Corps was the same President whose stridently anti-communist foreign policy led to the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. JFK spoke openly of communism as America’s ‘atheistic foe’, denouncing the ‘fanaticism and fury’ of a ‘godless’ ideological system.

President Kennedy delivers the State of the Union Address, 1963

President Obama has received heavy criticism from different quarters for his unrelenting support for abortion, even infamously opposing the Born Alive Infants Protection Act in the Illinois state legislature. There are no recorded instances of JFK addressing the issue of abortion. Prior to the late 1960s, abortion was not an issue on the American political agenda, and no mainstream politician advocated its legalisation. History tells a sad story regarding the road taken by some of the later Kennedys on this issue although JFK’s sister, Eunice, was always a vocal supporter of various pro-life organisations, and objected publicly to the use of a quotation by JFK in a poster designed by the National Abortion Rights Action League. Her husband, Sargent Shriver, who was chosen by President Kennedy as the first Director of the Peace Corps, also consistently opposed abortion. Sadly, both of the Supreme Court Justices appointed by JFK – Arthur Goldberg and Byron White – concurred with the majority in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) which struck down the remaining Comstock laws. By the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973, Goldberg had left the Supreme Court. White, however, was one of the two dissenting Justices in Roe, criticising the majority for ‘interposing a constitutional barrier to state efforts to protect human life and . . . investing mothers and doctors with the constitutionally protected right to exterminate it’. He dissented again in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1993), favouring a decision which would have overturned the judgment in Roe, and is generally seen as having been a consistently pro-life member of the Supreme Court, something for which we can thank Kennedy.

JFK, as well as being the doyen of the left, is often cited as one of the last of a dying breed of conservative Democrats. Perhaps, on the fiftieth anniversary of his inauguration, in an age in which so many politicians seem concerned only with doing what will increase their own power, with what is expedient, people of good will from different ends of the political spectrum can agree in holding up JFK – whatever his personal and political shortcomings – as a model of a politician who did things not because they were expedient, but because they were ‘right’. To do the right thing, one has to be willing not to give up when one cannot achieve a quick fix, but to ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe’. Most importantly, in a world in which human rights – despite the soaring rhetoric in their favour – have become increasingly cheapened, let us heed Kennedy’s statement of his own belief ‘that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God’.